As mentioned in a previous column (Issue 130), John Mayall was traveling back and forth between England and America, where he became enamored with the Los Angeles lifestyle. In 1969 he experienced two momentous occasions. He had broken up the Bluesbreakers, opting for a quieter, more laid-back style without drums. And, he took possession of a house at 8353 Grandview Drive in Laurel Canyon.
In 1968 Mayall had vacationed in LA and met several Laurel Canyon residents, not the least of them Frank Zappa. The list of musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon from the late 1960s to early 1970s plays like a Who’s Who in 60s rock. Among them were Cass Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Carole King, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, Glenn Frey, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Harry Nilsson. This collection of clowns lived within blocks of each other. The cross-pollination of this group of people as they partied and played together became an incalculable part of the folk/rock sound that would define that LA magic.
On Mayall’s return to England he recorded Blues From Laurel Canyon. Except for reunion recordings, this would be the last album with a classic Bluesbreakers lineup, with Mick Taylor and Peter Green on guitars, Colin Allen on drums and Steve Thompson on bass.
Here’s “Walkin’ on Sunset,” which is about, well, walking on Sunset.
On that vacation trip Mayall had put money down on the Laurel Canyon house, but he had to wait for the escrow to clear. When he returned in 1969 his intent was to stay and form a new musical direction that used mostly new players and no “rock” lead guitarist and no drums. The result was the aptly named album The Turning Point. With Jon Mark on acoustic guitar, Steve Thompson on bass and Johnny Almond on saxes, flutes and mouth percussion, the result was a departure from the more rock-based sound of the Bluesbreakers. In July 1969 they recorded the album live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. The mixed and mastered album was released in October 1969.
They recorded a haunting “Saw Mill Gulch Road” with Mayall on slide. Remember, this was at the Fillmore East in the same year that saw bands like Led Zeppelin rolling through. Those were the days.
When Mayall finally took possession of the Laurel Canyon house he went crazy with renovation. Over the next five years he reworked the magic in the home, adding a pool, rearranging the interior and adding a Tudor-style bar, using railroad ties he cut and mounted himself. The bar had room for the bevy of entertainment cronies flocking to the house in the after-hours. He named it the Brain Damage Club, and by all accounts the tavern lived up to its name.
After the subsequent Empty Rooms LP, Mayall retooled his band once again and recorded my personal favorite album, USA Union. This was also my first Mayall album and I purchased it just after it was released in October 1970. I still have that copy. Mayall recruited Harvey Mandel on guitar and Larry Taylor from Canned Heat. The brilliant stroke was adding Don “Sugarcane’” Harris on violin.
When Mayall first visited LA he met Frank Zappa and struck up a friendship over a shared interest in blues and R&B. Mayall stayed at Zappa’s home in Laurel Canyon during his trip to LA and they spent days going over Frank’s prodigious collection of recordings. In October 1969 Zappa had released Hot Rats on which he used Sugarcane for some amazing violin tracks, and Mayall was blown away.
In 1969 Zappa knew he wanted Harris for his Hot Rats sessions but had trouble finding him. Sugarcane Harris had a history of drug abuse, with a serious heroin addiction that often landed him in jail. Zappa finally contacted Harris’ mother and found that, yes, her boy Don was once again in the slammer. Zappa bailed him out and Harris did albums with Zappa like Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich, all classics that would not be the same without Sugarcane Harris.
Mayall recruited Harris for USA Union and the result is predictably marvelous. This cut is “Nature’s Disappearing,” a song about climate problems that back in 1970 was horribly prescient. Everyone gets to breathe on this. I love the laid-back feel of this album but also Mandel and Taylor channeling their Canned Heat roots.
Shiver me timbers.
Here’s a great example of laid-back intensity. “You Must Be Crazy” has only guitar, bass and violin for instruments, with Mayall laying on vocals. This one rocks. Dig Sugarcane Harris running his electric violin through a wah-wah pedal.
OK, just one more, I promise. I include “Off the Road” only because the tune features Larry Taylor on bass. We don’t talk about bass enough, which is weird because that’s my main squeeze.
I thought it wonderful that Mayall let Taylor breathe on this one.
Shout out to engineer John Judnich on this album. I would love to talk to Mandel and Taylor about their playing on these sessions. Coolness.
Polydor, Mayall’s record company masters, were pushing for more albums while Mayall’s popularity was high. The next LP was an ambitious double album, Back to the Roots, that would include old friends like Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Mayall was happy with the sessions but after mixing the album, felt the result was too much like a traffic jam. You can just imagine having Clapton, Taylor, and Mandel soloing on the same tune. Mayall later remixed the songs from the original 24-track tapes and released this as Archives to Eighties in 1988.
In 1972 Mayall was channeling the rock fusion movement and released Jazz Blues Fusion. It was well received and it’s well worth a listen. In October, 1971 Mayall started a new project, picking up Shakey Jake Harris on harp and vocals, Ron Selico on drums, Larry Taylor on bass, and the incredible Freddy Robinson on guitar. Joining Mayall at the board again was John Judnich. Mayall loved the result but the resulting 1972 Shakey Jake Harris album, The Devil’s Harmonica, sank without a trace. I tried to find some video but was unsuccessful. I went looking for the recording on the internet. Mayall is credited as the producer and guest artist. You can get the vinyl for $12.99 but the CD will run you $903. Huh?
From 1972 to 1981 Mayall toured like a madman but also managed to release 11 albums.
A tragedy occurred in 1979 when some teenagers messed up with fireworks.
Every time Mayall returned from a grueling road trip his respite was his home in Laurel Canyon. On each return he would have an idea on improvements. He had purchased surrounding lots for $3,000 each so no one could build around him. That’s what I said. $3,000 for a lot in Laurel Canyon. He paid $30,000 for the property originally. Ok, let’s stop thinking about that. On return from a tour in 1978 he hired a gardener and turned the back lot into an English garden, complete with arbor and walkways.
On September 16, 1979, it all burned to the ground. Mayall recalls sunning by the pool with his girlfriend in the morning and getting a phone call from a neighbor warning of smoke up the hill from their house. They went out back and the smoke was worse than described, and police helicopters were swirling around alerting everyone to evacuate. Mayall saw nearby houses igniting and a tree in his yard smoldering. Everyone hopped in cars and skedaddled.
Two hours later all was gone. Twenty-four homes were destroyed including Mayall’s beloved Grandview refuge. A blow worse than losing the home was the loss of all of Mayall’s possessions. Gone were his books, paintings, albums, instruments (!!!), live recordings, clothes, pictures, and memorabilia. Rough day.
In 1982 Mayall reformed the Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor and toured extensively, releasing an album, Return Of The Bluesbreakers, in 1985. We have a clip here of the band playing “My Time After a While” live in 1982. This may be the only time I’ve seen Mick Taylor playing a Fender Strat. And check out who is back on bass.
The following years gave us 16 more albums, including his latest, Nobody Told Me, in 2019. He was 85 years old at this point for crying out loud. Here’s a pic of him playing live in Seattle in 2019.
Ridiculous, but ravishing.
Mayall always used his personal experiences as food for his muse. There were several albums, including USA Union, which featured his reactions to his long, tumultuous relationship with Nancy Throckmorton, a photographer who sang backup vocals with Mayall and did a lot of his album art. The excellent autobiography Blues from Laurel Canyon describes many songs that are rooted in something that happened during a particular day or in his love life. Those reminiscences are worth the read right there.
Mayall recalled Big Bill Broonzy, one of Mayall’s heroes, talking about songwriting. Broonzy said he just thought of something mundane, like a kitchen, then thought of all the things that happen in that kitchen. The cooking, the talking, the fighting, and the warm love. Suddenly you had a song. Mayall is great at it and we are so fortunate to have so many examples of his warm love.
Speaking of which, here’s one of the sweetest of love songs. Again from USA Union, written for that Nancy, “My Pretty Girl.”
Header image of John Mayall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Javieritopito.